Experts said this anti-vaccine attitude is part of a larger trend seen across the state.
Vaccines have helped combat polio, diphtheria, measles and other communicable diseases in past decades, said Jeffrey Kahn, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Health and professor at UT Southwestern Medical School.
“If we don’t continue to have high rates of immunization in this country, then we’re going to start to see some of these diseases again,” Kahn said. “And it’s going to be a really sad commentary on the state of public health.”
The number of students with exemptions for at least one vaccine has climbed from 220 to 342 over the past five school years, according to GCISD. And from October 2018 to April 2019, that number leapt from 342 to 440. These do not include students who are medically unable to get the vaccine.
“The state requires a certain set of immunizations to enter kindergarten, and the next set that is required for a student to receive is entering seventh grade,” GCISD Health Director Amy Howard said in an email response. “It would make sense that there is a rise [in exemptions] in those years.”
CISD students with exemptions for at least one vaccine increased from 126 to 184 in the past five years, according to district data.
“We’re growing as a community, and so I do see some of that just being the natural way that it’s going to flow,” CISD lead nurse Karen Flexer said.
Reasons for exemptions
People may get medical exemptions because of interfering health conditions, said Chris Van Deusen, media relations director for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“Then there is the more prevalent [exemption type], which is the exemption for reason of conscience,” Van Deusen said. “That could be religious, philosophical or some kind of objection to an immunization, either a specific vaccine or all of them.”
Conscientious exemptions became legal when Texas legislators passed a law in 2003 to allow parents to decline vaccines for “reasons of conscience,” or personal choice. Prior to 2003, exemptions were only given for religious or medical reasons, according to the DSHS.
The number of Texas students with conscientious exemptions jumped from 2,314 to 44,716 students between 2003-16, according to a study by the Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Differences in schools
DSHS data indicates that overall exemption rates in both GCISD and CISD have risen above 2%.
“[Exemptions have] probably doubled in the last five years,” said Russell Jones, the chief epidemiologist at Tarrant County Public Health. “Based on the recent trend, I would say yes, it’s going to continue to increase.”
Exemption rates are higher at some private schools. Crown of Life Lutheran School in Colleyville has an exemption rate of more than 13%, and Grapevine Faith Christian School has one of 10.5%, according to the DSHS.
Crown of Life did not respond to Community Impact Newspaper’s requests for comment.
It is not known why private schools see higher exemption numbers, Grapevine Faith school nurse Tammy Saunders said in an email response.
On the other hand, many Catholic schools, such as Holy Trinity Catholic School in Grapevine, have hardly any exemptions.
Students enrolled in Catholic schools in Texas must be vaccinated unless there is a medical reason for them not to do so, according to a policy first adopted by the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department in 2008.
Recent measles outbreaks
Tarrant County Public Health reported one measles case in March. It is the county’s first case of measles since 2015. County officials also alerted the community about a case of possible measles exposure in May after a traveler passing through the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport tested positive for measles.
Tarrant County is also ranked as the 12th most at-risk county across the nation for a measles outbreak, according to a May study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a record-breaking 981 cases of measles nationwide from Jan. 1-May 31—the highest number of reported cases since measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.
For a highly contagious disease like measles, about 90%-95% of the community needs to be immune to prevent outbreaks, Kahn said.
Travel abroad to countries where measles has not been eliminated has exacerbated the issue, Kahn said.
“What’s happening now is that there’s a larger percentage of un-immunized individuals, and that’s allowing the virus to spread,” he said.
Both CISD and GCISD officials said they work with Tarrant County Public Health when dealing with communicable diseases like measles.
There is currently no cure for measles, Kahn said. Once someone becomes infected, there is only supportive care. Symptoms can be mild, or the disease could lead to serious complications. Vaccines, on the other hand, are safe and effective, he said.
A matter of choice
Local group Texans for Vaccine Choice has been active and vocal about preserving parents’ rights to choose for their children. Members, including health care professionals, advocate for personal liberties and informed consent, according to its website.
Jackie Schlegel, the group’s executive director, testified against Senate Bill 329 at a hearing April 23. The bill had proposed to make exemption rates available for each campus in a school district upon request. TDSHS currently provides this data only at the district level and some individual private schools.
“This bill seeks to create forced vaccine compliance in a hostile environment for those making informed medical decisions with their chosen medical provider,” she said.
There needs to be a balance between staying informed and not creating panic, Flexer said.
“I do worry about summer,” Flexer said. “I worry about all the travel and all the exposures that are usually going to be contained, so parents who have not vaccinated their children, they need to know their own risks and responsibilities.”
Flexer recommends concerned families speak to their physicians and consult the CDC about immunizations.
“The people who are against vaccines ... and those who are for vaccines basically come from the same thing—trying do it for the health of the children,” Jones said. “From there, we diverge.”
Additional reporting by Korri Kezar and Emily Davis
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